Labour and Infrastructure – new developments

Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has today published the remit of Labour’s proposed National Infrastructure Commission – the new body the party proposes to plan long-term infrastructure provision in the UK. This takes forward the work of Sir John Armitt, the Chairman of the Olympic Delivery Authority, who has been drawing up proposals for the party.

The National Trust has been commenting on these proposals because, whether new roads or rail lines, airports, large scale electricity generation or pylon routes (to give a few examples), infrastructure can have a profound effect on the special places we care for, and special areas of countryside and coast more widely.

In our October blog post, we set out our main messages. In summary, these were that:

  • We didn’t see a need for wholesale reform to the current planning process
  • Government Ministers should continue to make decisions about infrastructure, as the embodiment of the wider public interest
  • The Treasury and Chancellor would have far too great an influence over the proposed commission. Any Commission should be cross-Government.
  • The priorities of the proposed commission are skewed towards economic growth, rather than having an approach which reconciles the needs of the economy with those of people and the environment
  • There is an assumption that ‘grey infrastructure’ (roads, new buildings etc.) will always be the answer – natural, green infrastructure and demand management may sometimes be the best solution.
  • More thought needed to be given to public engagement in shaping priorities and individual schemes
  • Clearer spatial guidance is needed to ensure developments avoid damaging special places like National Parks and AONBs

Today’s document doesn’t do much to allay these concerns – and is generally quite light on detail on how the new regime would work in practice. Although the commission’s approach would have to be consistent with sustainability requirements and climate change targets, it would be given the central remit of fostering ‘long term economic growth in the UK’ and maintaining the UK’s ‘international competitiveness among G20 nations’. The commission would have a goal to secure ‘five cities in the European top 20 for growth between now and 2045’ – reminiscent of BuzzFeed, some might say.

The document does not shed further light on who will sit on the commission, and on how wider environmental issues would be considered. It would be a mistake, we believe, to have a new commission as an adjunct to the Treasury, and would lead many to question the extent of its independence from Government. A genuine commission would consider infrastructure need in the round, and work across Government. If it would need to be linked to a Government department in particular, perhaps the Cabinet Office or Department for Communities and Local Government would be a better home.

The proposals are also silent on how to get people involved in the debate and on securing a wider public mandate for new infrastructure. Green Alliance are engaged in some important work in this area which we hope the Labour Party will consider as it develops its thinking.

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